You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone

October 8, 2011 

That absurd traffic light at Railroad Street and 11th Avenue in Phenix City has driven me nuts for 25 years.

That’s the route I take to and from work every day, and if God were to give me back the time I’ve spent sitting in my car -- usually the only one anywhere in sight -- waiting for it to turn green, I’d live to be 127.

It’s the toll gate in the middle of the desert in “Blazing Saddles.” (I’d quote Slim Pickens’ immortal line here, but this is supposed to be a family newspaper.)

Think the lights in Columbus aren’t synchronized? (That, by the way, is what’s known as a rhetorical question.) Well, you can’t say the same about the Railroad Street light. In fact, I became convinced over the years that it had the most vigilant sensor of any motion-activated traffic mechanism on earth: It automatically and inevitably turned red at the approach of a vehicle.

That kind of light doesn’t just stop you -- it taunts you. It mocks you. It wants you to hear its silent electronic laughter at you. It teases you into thinking you’re going to get through, and then at the last moment, like Lucy pulling the football away right before Charlie Brown kicks it, you have to stop and yield the right of way to … well, an occasional haughty pigeon or house cat, but that’s usually about it.

There’s an evil genius to that kind of Twilight Zone traffic control.

We’re all familiar with the problem of automation replacing human beings in the workplace, but this goes a step beyond that. You know that demonic driver in front of you, poking along toward the green light you already know he’s going to time with oblivious precision, creeping through just as it turns red and leaving you stopped, swearing, pounding the wheel and wishing you had a rocket launcher mounted on the hood?

(Ever seen the original “Bedazzled”? I’m convinced that the driver I just described is the devil, and that he looks just like Peter Cook.)

A light like this makes those drivers redundant, which I guess you’d have to say is an upside.

It’s become a running joke at our house over the years. On nights when I’m working late and my family wants me to call when I’m on my way home, that’s always been where I hit the speed dial on the cell.

“Guess where I am.”

“The red light on Railroad Street.”

“Bingo. See you shortly.”

Those nights when I’ve worked the latest and headed home the tiredest, it’s always been there waiting … beckoning with its false green promise, its evil red twin waiting in ambush.

Now it looks like those memorable moments are a thing of the past.

For the last few days, the traffic light has been covered by what looks like a bunch of Hefty bags, and stop signs have been put up at all four points of the intersection.

It looks like an amateur exorcism. I don’t like it.

Maybe it makes no sense, but now I find myself nostalgic for the small-town civic illogic a light like that represents. It’s been a familiar part of my daily routine for years, in a part of town for which I’ve developed real affection. Railroad Street is a stretch of mostly well-tended homes lived in by people who obviously care about their neighborhood, and if those folks thought they needed a traffic light, who am I to say otherwise?

Now I want the signs gone, the trash bags removed and the light back on, doing its mischievous and maddening thing once again. For all my grousing and cussing over the last 25 years, my world has now been knocked off kilter.

They paved paradise and put up a four-way stop.

Dusty Nix, 706-571-8528; dnix@ledger-enquirer.com.

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